How the mall, once a pop-culture touchstone, fell out of fashion
It’s the most spendthrift time of the year — a period when materialism is integral to tradition. To celebrate the holidays without shopping would seemingly render someone a philistine Grinch.
But the mood surrounding fashion and shopping this holiday season isn’t as tried-and-true as television commercials may suggest. Determined to set their own traditions, Millennials are perusing for fashion online, at independent boutiques and on Instagram — but in malls? Not as much.
The mall — suburbia’s onetime lifestyle nexus for giant pretzels, ear piercings and a girl’s first thong — is battling a decline in cultural relevance as the social meeting place for young Americans continues to transition from physical spaces to phone screens.
Malls, with their atrium ceilings, uniform store roster and pleasant chemical aroma, are a comforting postcard of commercial Americana. The mall concept has been replicated with carbon-copy efficiency in bustling suburbs across the nation. But this homogeneous familiarity has also contributed to many malls’ waning pertinence — their contents have often become too detached from local community life and are easily accessed on the Internet.
This summer, Credit Suisse issued a report estimating that one-quarter of today’s existing malls will close by 2022.
Much has been written about “The Death of Retail.” Few accounts, though, are told from the perspective of creatively inclined Millennials, the likes of whom are helping to contribute to the mall’s cultural decline.
WWD consulted a coterie of young, fashion-adjacent creatives who grew up shopping at malls across the U.S. Now as young urbanites in creative industries, it seemed plausible to ask this group to surmise and suggest where the mall had gone astray and what could fix it. Particularly considering, as one noted, “It takes years, a lot of time, for [fashion] trends to travel inward to the center of the country.”
The bad news
In anxiety-riddled post-9/11 America — a time when Millennials grew up and developed formative ideas of consumerism and behavior — malls were essential places for teens to roam free for a few hours of supervised fun.
Dior’s saddle bags, spindling stiletto heels, Tiffany & Co.’s heart-shaped charm bracelets — all visual elements of Paris Hilton’s “rich bitch” phenomenon — heralded a trend for brazen excess. With e-commerce still nascent, and social media a thing of the future, trend boppers had no choice but to head to the mall in an attempt to re-create the novelty-driven aesthetic.
Morgan Maher, a casting agent and artist who grew up shopping at the Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, Md., remembers this time vividly. While the mall was an important sourcing ground for trendy clothes in her childhood, she believes that stores have since lost their pulse. “When I was little I remember going to the mall and getting a soft pretzel and going to Limited Too. Limited Too, then, was an accurate representation of pop culture — if I saw Jessica Simpson in a bucket hat and then went to Limited Too, I could buy the exact same bucket hat or fuzzy sweater. Now if you go into a store you see a pair of black leggings, but on the runway it’s marabou feather pants — it’s not reflective.”
When it comes to matters of “what’s cool,” information spreads too fast and too far, quickly rendering a single message — or in fashion’s case, a single collection or design idea — as status quo. The mall’s tenants, it would appear, sell many of these tired messages.
Lauren Rodriguez, codesigner of the emerging fashion brand Lorod, grew up shopping at the Santa Monica Mall in California. She said of the institution: “It was a social space to meet friends, hang out, buy your first bra — definitely a lot of hours were clocked there.”
“I generally don’t think there is a place for malls anymore, it’s not that unique anymore,” Rodriguez believes. “A lot of the stores are not luxury or even copying luxury so that people can achieve fashion at a lower price point. There is definitely a lot of junk. Even at Target you can find [a version of] Yeezy for one-eighth of the price.” She noted that the mall’s breadth of offering is “unimaginably smaller than what one can find on the Internet, and not in the curated sense.”
The mall, in its heyday, was a portal to the lifestyles to which people could aspire — a stomping ground for discovery. This function, however, is now far better, faster and more diversely fulfilled by Instagram. Credit Suisse’s report expects that as malls continue to close, e-commerce will represent 35% of all retail sales by 2030 — more than double today’s share of 17%.
Adrian Diaz, a partner in the art space and bar Secret Project Robot, who grew up shopping at the Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso, Texas, noted: “Instagram really killed the mall in a way. Now it’s where you go to get your style references, find new labels and navigate the world in the way that the mall used to.
“The way that one section of the mall was the hangout space for the freaks, and the other side was the cool kids — it was that intersection of people that made you want to go to the mall. You’d dress your best and buy into a culture that you really wanted to be a part of. Now digitally you can be a part of any culture you want by posting something, tagging something or liking a product or a brand — it’s a new way of expressing ourselves, visually as well.”
Noted Maher: “When you go shopping at a mall you are buying into a lifestyle. I think that people are more knowledgeable now. Because they have access to the Internet, they don’t want to settle for a lifestyle that’s dictated to them at Forever 21 or Macy’s or even Saks. You don’t want to settle — you have higher sights.”
Where do their preferences lie?
In Paris Hilton’s heyday — a time with which the majority of sources interviewed are now obsessed — the “It” bag rose to prominence and mall-going traffic remained brisk. While “It” bags were commercial, widespread successes, consumers bought them still largely ignorant to the scope of their mass production. There was no platform, like Instagram, where one could see thousands of others toting these status symbols around the world.
Now, said Maher, “I think people are just more aware of not supporting ‘the man.’”
With the Internet rendering shopping so accessible that it has lost its sense of entertainment, many sources interviewed say they find a hobbyist pursuit in the “hunt” required to find resale and vintage clothes that suit their personal taste, nostalgic preferences, and size.
Artist Jordan Barse, who grew up shopping at the Westchester Mall in White Plains, N.Y., creates work that riffs on early-Internet consumerism and mall culture. She said of her time spent searching for vintage clothes: “Whereas someone else might pour time into a video game, I put mine into the game that is shopping because so much of shopping for me is browsing and searching, putting things in my cart. There is a really exciting challenge in finding exactly what you want, or didn’t know you wanted.”
Vaquera designer Patric DiCaprio, who grew up shopping at the Bel Air Mall in Mobile, Ala., believes there has been a cultural shift among young shoppers: “People don’t want to look like they are wearing new crisp clothes anymore — that is a thing of the recent past. I don’t want to look like I’m wearing a shirt that I just took out of the package. If someone asks me where I got it, I want to be able to have a story to tell. New clothing is a saturated market, I work at Beacon’s Closet and see 10 billion shirts a day.”
Maher spends hours scouring eBay and The RealReal, searching for archival pieces from Prada and Courrèges. “I think the process of eBay-ing — you are not after what’s on trend or what’s on sale. On eBay you can search into more of the lifestyle you want to live. I think everyone is so hyper articulate and I think people are more conscious in creating an outside identity — they correlate how they dress to their identity because of selfies.”
In a way, the “look at me” performance qualities of today’s selfies mimic the celebutante antics of the early Aughts — the fashions from which, with irony, are back in style. Their extreme, provocative tone looks great on Instagram.
Jackie Shuyatan, a San Francisco-based curator at Instagram, looks to early-Aughts icons like Hilton, Devon Aoki and Nicole Richie as beacons of style inspiration. Shuyatan, who grew up shopping at the Sunvalley Shopping Center in Concord, Calif., combs the Internet for John Galliano-era Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier and Nineties Comme des Garçons. “It’s all just really quirky and ridiculous, tacky in a way,” she said.
Maher explained of the attraction of early 2000s fashion: “The time of Paris Hilton and Galliano Dior was just about consumption and obsession — not being afraid of embracing how you want to look. Everything was so extreme, and now people are so safe in their fashion choices.”
DiCaprio said of the Hilton era: “Everyone watched ‘The Simple Life,’ wearing those clothes now is like an inside joke. That time was all about buying new things and spending money and status symbols. It’s very different when you buy it vintage now that there is a level of removal — there is a certain irony to it.”
Thrift, resale and consignment endeavors are a booming industry — an $18 billion economy that is set to balloon to $33 billion by 2021, according to a recent report by ThredUp. Resale web sites are racketing growth at 35% a year.
A similar, under-the-radar quotient has been cultivated by online native brands. In finding popularity independent of physical retail spaces or malls, these labels have cultivated a mystique that is akin to finding fashion in the wild. To re-create this feeling in a mall, Diaz — who also works as the creative projects manager for The Promotion Factory, strategizing marketing and retail endeavors for brands like Bulova and Mulberry — feels stores would have to “push product down to a bare minimum. Use spaces as visual statements instead.”
DiCaprio believes shopping in stores today is “more about buying into an identity. We at Vaquera are now trying to figure out identities and how to market them. This is the future of fashion — making a statement rather than sales. The digital world has reduced a lot of conversation to memes and images rather than physical interactions.”
What could fix the mall?
As the U.S. experiences what some pundits consider the tail end of capitalism’s stride, what is an ideal, sustainable solution for the mall? In mulling what advantages the mall has over the Internet, most sources concurred: An in-person, immediate, easy-to-navigate experience. For them, an ideal mall would be more thoughtfully assembled — juggling uses as a community center, a party space, an art gallery and a forum for unique products.
In Asian countries including China, South Korea and Japan, malls continue to serve as important meeting places, enjoyed for their art installations (say, the Yayoi Kusama-designed ceiling at Tokyo’s Ginza Six), food courts (such as Gourmet 494 at Seoul’s Galleria department store) and constant sense of renewal (like the revolving door of shops, art galleries and events at Beijing’s Taikoo Li Sanlitun). It is not uncommon for developers and stores to forgo short-term revenue and completely shut operations to accommodate a full renovation, as is the case for Parco’s Shibuya, Tokyo flagship — which closed for renewal in August 2016 and isn’t expected to reopen until 2020.
Malls and shopping centers in the U.S. are doing the same — or have done for years. South Coast Plaza is as known for its art collection on display as it is for its roster of luxury tenants, while Caruso’s The Grove regularly tinkers with its lineup of stores and services to keep consumers coming back (it was one of the first centers to offer complementary Uber rides to holiday shoppers, for instance). Then there are Westfield and Taubman Co.’s mega spending to update their malls in Los Angeles — $1 billion and $500 million, respectively, with Westfield including a space dedicated to pop-ups at its revamped Century City mall.
Grace Sparapani, an art history graduate student known for her feminist memes posted to the Instagram account @frigidartbitch, said of the mall’s strength: “There is something about having a feeling of freedom in a physical space like the mall, so I don’t know what they can do about that to help them survive.”
Rodriguez agreed, adding: “I think with everything becoming so digital, the one thing that is nice about malls is things being walking distance from each other in a designated space.”
Barse felt that “the benefit of a mall-type scenario is immediacy. Right now, it’s the equivalent to buying furniture from Ikea — you don’t feel like putting in the time and effort to find a cheaper and more unique thing.”
It would seem there is a true hankering, though, for malls to diversify their offerings — looking beyond the specialty chain and department stores for which they are known. Shuyatan said, “I think that the mall can have a renaissance if it’s more small-business-oriented. I think now what’s really lacking is how everything is so mass-produced. If the mall highlighted smaller people it would give people a reason to go to the mall and have fun with unknown designers.”
A mall in New York’s Chinatown is undergoing this type of revival. Within the last year, this unnamed mall — located at 75 East Broadway — has become home to a handful of indie, small businesses that include the experimental art book and record shop 2 Bridges Music Arts and the vintage store James Veloria. This holiday season, the mall also hosted pop-up shops by Eckhaus Latta and the artist Mirabelle Marden.
Brandon Giordano, cofounder of the James Veloria vintage shop, thinks this model for an urban mall could be easily replicated in suburban districts. “I think people really long for something special and unique, especially in suburban areas. If there is a way for small businesses to move into those spaces — if you look at Eataly, people love having those experiences and meeting small vendors. It should be a place that supports community and local businesses, and I think big-box businesses are starting to see that,” he said.
An upstate New York mall highlighted in a recent article by The New York Times is charting a similar path to renewal. On the brink of closure, the manager for the St. Lawrence Centre in Massena made a call to her community — welcoming local artisans and food vendors to revive the mall by filling its many vacant spaces.
Diaz noted, “You are not getting culture from the mall anymore, that element has died. Stores in malls have to become hubs of culture again — not just selling product, but selling elements that make them a brand.
“Make them rave spaces, put art in them and make them a gallery or artist studios. Utilize them for people pushed out of certain neighborhoods — make them useful again,” she said. “When you repurpose them, you will make them creative and sought after again.”